Breaking through: Austin native has committed to play Division I basketball

Published 8:41 pm Thursday, April 4, 2024

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When Cham Okey departed Austin High School for prep school two after his junior year, he was taking a bet on himself.

Okey had to grow up incredibly fast and his basketball game has grown with him.

After two years away from his hometown, the former Packer has committed to play basketball at Division I Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. 

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“It’s been a lot of work,” Okey said. “All of those times I woke up at 5 a.m. to come into the gym, I was wondering if it was going to be worth it and ended up being worth it. I felt like I was really wanted (at SIUE). The facilities are really big and it seems like they really wanted me. I fit really well into their offense.”

SIUE split the regular season series with Morehead State University, which played in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this March. As Okey has been watching the tournament this year, he dreams of getting the Cougars over the hump and into the Big Dance.

Okey also has high hopes for his own game as he prepares for playing Division I basketball. 

“I’d love to be freshman of the year in the conference and I feel like I can achieve that if I stay consistent,” Okey said. “My biggest strengths are my shooting and my defense. I feel like I can guard anyone one through four.”

Okey’s strength has been forged from tragedy after the year 2022 was a whirlwind year for his family. Okey’s father Chol Opiew was murdered while visiting family in Ethiopia and in that same year, Okey helped lead the Packers to the Class A state basketball tournament. 

“The community supported me a lot back then, and I got through it,” Okey said. “My dad is one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. He was an encourager and he always encouraged us to do well in school. That’s why I have good grades.”

Ellis Middle School teacher Tom Fritz was Okey’s next door neighbor in Austin and he’s been highly involved with the Okey family. He coached Okey and his son Tommy Fritz to a city league championship in football and he’s always known Okey to be a hard worker.

“He spent a lot of time playing basketball and building his skill up. Cham would be out playing basketball and then he would come home and play some more,” Tom Fritz said. “He’s got a really good work ethic and we’re really proud of him. I know his dad also instilled the importance of education in him as well.”

After his junior season with the Packers, Okey transferred to Minnesota Prep in Minneapolis for his senior season and he played in Phoenix Prep this last season. Okey came into his own at Phoenix Prep, averaging 18 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals, while shooting 50 percent from the field goals and 37 percent on three-pointers.

While attending prep school, Okey learned to become self motivated as classes were online and he lived in a house with some of his teammates. Besides staying busy with school, Okey learned how to dedicate himself in the weight room and he’s also stayed disciplined with his nutrition.

“It was crazy, but it was all worth it in the end,” Okey said. “It was a different experience than a public school. I feel like I’ve matured a lot. I had to learn to live on my own. There were a lot of sacrifices and the biggest thing I learned was all of the responsibilities that I had to take care of myself.”

Okey’s goal to play at the next level was fostered at an early age and it became stronger when he began to play better than his older brothers.

“I felt my whole life that I’ve always been better than my peers and in middle school I started taking it seriously because I saw that I could do something with it,” Okey said. “My brothers really helped me grow up.”

SIUE is located in Edwardsville, Illinois, which is 25 miles from St. Louis. The Cougars play in the Ohio Valley Conference and they went 17-16 overall last season.

Okey, who still considers going to state with the Packers as one of his favorite memories, is excited to represent his hometown at the next level.

“I thank all of my coaches, my parents, and all of my family and friends who have been big supporters,” Cham said.

Tom Fritz has had to follow Okey’s basketball career from afar since he left Austin two years ago, but he’s still supported him in every way possible.

“I think a lot of Cham’s growth started when he was a sophomore. His dad was gone a year before he passed and those boys and their uncle were pretty much running that house,” Fritz said. “They took care of their siblings and made sure they did their homework. I know Cham’s dad would be proud of him right now.”